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The Tulipomania

Alboni, the singer, had an exquisitely sweet voice, but was a very big

fat woman. Somebody accordingly remarked that she was an elephant that

had swallowed a nightingale. About as incongruous is the idea of a

nation of damp, foggy, fat, full-figured, broad-sterned, gin-drinking,

tobacco-smoking Dutchmen in Holland, going crazy over a flower. But they

did so, for three or four years together. Their craze is known in

history as the Tulipomania, because it was a mania about tulips.

Just a word about the Dutchmen first.

These stout old fellows were not only hardy navigators, keen

discoverers, ingenious engineers, laborious workmen, able financiers,

shrewd and rich merchants, enthusiastic patriots and tremendous

fighters, but they were eminently distinguished (as they still are to a

considerable extent) by a love of elegant literature, poetry, painting,

music and other fine arts, including horticulture. It was a Fleming that

invented painting in oils. Before him, white of egg was used, or

gum-water, or some such imperfect material, for spreading the color.

Erasmus, one of the most learned, ready-minded, acute, graceful and

witty scholars that ever lived, was a Dutchman. All Holland and

Flanders, in days when they were richer, and stronger compared with the

rest of the world than they are now, were full of singing societies and

musical societies and poetry making societies. The universities of

Leyden and Utrecht and Louvain are of highly an ancient European fame.

And as for flowers, and bulbs in particular, Holland is a principal home

and market of them now, more than two hundred years after the time I am

going to tell of.

Tulips grow wild in Southern Russia, the Crimea and Asia Minor, as

potatoes do in Peru. The first tulip in Christian Europe was raised in

Augsburg, in the garden of a flower-loving lawyer, one Counsellor

Herwart, in the year 1559, thirteen years after Luther died. This tulip

bulb was sent to Herwart from Constantinople. For about eighty years

after this the flower continually increased in repute and became more

and more known and cultivated, until the fantastic eagerness of the

demand for fine ones and the great prices that they brought, resulted in

a real mania like that about the morus multicaulis, or the petroleum

mania of to-day, but much more intense. It began in the year 1635, and

went out with an explosion in the year 1837.

This tulip business is, I believe, the only speculative excitement in

history whose subject-matter did not even claim to have any real value.

Petroleum is worth some shillings a gallon for actual use for many

purposes. Stocks always claim to represent some real trade or business.

The morus multicaulis was to be as permanent a source of wealth as corn,

and was expected to produce the well known mercantile substance of silk.

But nobody ever pretended that tulips could be eaten, or manufactured,

or consumed in any way of practical usefulness. They have not one single

quality of the kind termed useful. They have nothing desirable except

the beauty of a peculiarly short-lived blossom. You can do absolutely

nothing with them except to look at them. A speculation in them is

exactly as reasonable as one in butterflies would be.

In the course of about one year, 1634-5, the tulip frenzy, after having

increased for fifteen or twenty years with considerable speed, came to a

climax, and poisoned the whole Dutch nation. Prices had at the end of

this short period risen from high to extravagant, and from extravagant

to insane. High and low, counts, burgomasters, merchants, shop-keepers,

servants, shoe-blacks, all were buying and selling tulips like mad. In

order to make the commodity of the day accessible to all, a new weight

was invented, called a perit, so small that there were about eight

thousand of them in one pound avoirdupois, and a single tulip root

weighing from half an ounce to an ounce, would contain from 200 to 400

of these perits. Thus, anybody unable to buy a whole tulip, could buy a

perit or two, and have what the lawyers call an "undivided interest" in

a root. This way of owning shows how utterly unreal was the pretended

value. For imagine a small owner attempting to take his own perits and

put them in his pocket. He would make a little hole in the tulip-root,

would probably kill it, and would certainly obtain a little bit of

utterly worthless pulp for himself, and no value at all. There was a

whole code of business regulations made to meet the peculiar needs of

the tulip business, besides, and in every town were to be found

"tulip-notaries," to conduct the legal part of the business, take

acknowledgments of deeds, note protests, &c.

To say that the tulips were worth their weight in gold would be a very

small story. It would not be a very great exaggeration to say that they

were worth their size in diamonds. The most valuable species of all was

named "Semper Augustus," and a bulb of it which weighed 200 perits, or

less than half an ounce avoirdupois, was thought cheap at 5,500 florins.

A florin may be called about 40 cents; so that the little brown root was

worth $2,200, or 220 gold eagles, which would weigh, by a rough

estimate, eight pounds four ounces, or 132 ounces avoirdupois. Thus this

half ounce Semper Augustus was worth--I mean he would bring--two hundred

and sixty-four times his weight in gold!

There were many cases where people invested whole fortunes equal to

$40,000 or $50,000 in collections of forty or fifty tulip roots. Once

there happened to be only two Semper Augustuses in all Holland, one in

Haarlem and one in Amsterdam. The Haarlem one was sold for twelve acres

of building lots, and the Amsterdam one for a sum equal to $1,840,00,

together with a new carriage, span of grey horses and double harness,


Here is the list of merchandise and estimated prices given for one root

of the Viceroy tulip. It is interesting as showing what real merchandise

was worth in those days by a cash standard, aside from its exhibition of

tremendous speculative bedlamism:

160 bushels wheat $179,20

320 bushels rye 223,20

Four fat oxen 192,00

Eight fat hogs 96,00

Twelve fat sheep 48,00

Two hogsheads wine 28,00

Four tuns beer 12,80

Two tuns butter 76,80

1000 lbs. cheese 48,00

A bed all complete 40,00

One suit clothes 32,00

A silver drinking cup 24,00


Total exactly $1,000,00

In 1636, regular tulip exchanges were established in the nine Dutch

towns where the largest tulip business was done, and while the gambling

was at its intensest, the matter was managed exactly as stock gambling

is managed in Wall street to-day. You went out into "the street" without

owning a tulip or a perit of a tulip in the world, and met another

fellow with just as many tulips as yourself. You talk and "banter" with

him, and finally (we will suppose) you "sell short" ten Semper

Augustuses, "seller three," for $2,000 each, in all $20,000. This means

in ordinary English, that without having any tulips (i. e., short,) you

promise to deliver the ten roots as above in three days from date. Now

when the three days are up, if Semper Augustuses are worth in the market

only $1,500, you could, if this were a real transaction, buy ten of them

for $15,000, and deliver them to the other gambler for $20,000, thus

winning from him the difference of $5,000. But if the roots have risen

and are worth $2,500 each, then if the transactions were real you would

have to pay $25,000 for the ten roots and could only get $20,000 from

the other gambler, and he, turning round and selling them at the market

price, would win from you this difference of $5,000. But in fact the

transaction was not real, it was a stock gambling one; neither party

owned tulips or meant to, or expected the other to; and the whole was a

pure game of chance or skill, to see which should win and which should

lose that $5,000 at the end of three days. When the time came, the

affair was settled, still without any tulips, by the loser paying the

difference to the winner, exactly as one loses what the other wins at a

game of poker or faro. Of course if you can set afloat a smart lie after

making your bargain, such as will send prices up or down as your profit

requires, you make money by it, just as stock gamblers do every day in

New York, London, Paris, and other Christian commercial cities.

While this monstrous Dutch gambling fury lasted, money was plenty,

everybody felt rich and Holland was in a whiz of windy delight. After

about three years of fool's paradise, people began to reflect that the

shuttlecock could not be knocked about in the air forever, and that when

it came down somebody would be hurt. So first one and then another began

quietly to sell out and quit the game, without buying in again. This

cautious infection quickly spread like a pestilence, as it always does

in such cases, and became a perfect panic or fright. All at once, as it

were, rich people all over Holland found themselves with nothing in the

world except a pocket full or a garden-bed full of flower roots that

nobody would buy and that were not good to eat, and would not have made

more than one tureen of soup if they were.

Of course this state of things caused innumerable bankruptcies,

quarrels, and refusals to complete bargains, everywhere. The government

and the courts were appealed to, but with Dutch good sense they refused

to enforce gambling transactions, and though the cure was very severe

because very sudden, they preferred to let "the bottom drop out" of the

whole affair at once. So it did. Almost everybody was either ruined or

impoverished. The very few who had kept any or all of their gains by

selling out in season, remained so far rich. And the vast actual

business interests of Holland received a damaging check, from which it

took many years to recover.

There were some curious incidents in the course of the tulipomania. They

have been told before, but they are worth telling again, as the poet

says, "To point the moral or adorn the tale."

A sailor brought to a rich Dutch merchant news of the safe arrival of a

very valuable cargo from the Levant. The old hunks rewarded the mariner

for his good tidings with one red herring for breakfast. Now Ben Bolt

(if that was his name--perhaps as he was a Dutchman it was something

like Benje Boltje) was very fond of onions, and spying one on the

counter as he went out of the store, he slipped it into his pocket, and

strolling back to the wharf, sat down to an odoriferous breakfast of

onions and herring. He munched away without finding anything unusual in

the flavor, until just as he was through, down came Mr. Merchant,

tearing along like a madman at the head of an excited procession of

clerks, and flying upon the luckless son of Neptune, demanded what he

had carried off besides his herring?

"An onion that I found on the counter."

"Where is it? Give it back instantly!"

"Just ate it up with my herring, mynheer."

Wretched merchant! In a fury of useless grief he apprised the sailor

that his sacrilegious back teeth had demolished a Semper Augustus

valuable enough, explained the unhappy old fellow, to have feasted the

Prince of Orange and the Stadtholder's whole court. "Thieves!" he cried

out--"Seize the rascal!" So they did seize him, and he was actually

tried, condemned and imprisoned for some months, all of which however

did not bring back the tulip root. It is a question after all in my

mind, whether that sailor was really as green as he pretended, and

whether he did not know very well what he was taking. It would have been

just like a reckless seaman's trick to eat up the old miser's twelve

hundred dollar root, to teach him not to give such stingy gifts next


An English traveller, very fond of botany, was one day in the

conservatory of a rich Dutchman, when he saw a strange bulb lying on a

shelf. With that extreme coolness and selfishness which too many

travellers have exercised, what does he do but take out his penknife

and carefully dissect it, peeling off the outer coats, and quartering

the innermost part, making all the time a great many wise observations

on the phenomena of the strange new root. In came the Dutchman all at

once, and seeing what was going on, he asked the Englishman, with rage

in his eyes, but with a low bow and that sort of restrained formal

civility which sometimes covers the most furious anger, if he knew what

he was about?

"Peeling a very curious onion," answered Mr. Traveller, as calmly as if

one had a perfect right to destroy other people's property to gratify

his own curiosity.

"One hundred thousand devils!" burst out the Dutchman, expressing the

extent of his anger by the number of evil spirits he invoked--"It is an

Admiral van der Eyck!"

"Indeed?" remarked the scientific traveller, "thank you. Are there a

good many of these admirals in your country?" and he drew forth his note

book to write down the little fact.

"Death and the devil!" swore the enraged Dutchman again--"come before

the Syndic and you shall find out all about it!" So he collared the

astounded onion-peeler, and despite all he could say, dragged him

straightway before the magistrate, where his scientific zeal suffered a

dreadful quencher in the shape of an affidavit that the "onion" was

worth four thousand florins--about $1600--and in the immediate judgment

of the Court, which "considered" that the prisoner be forthwith clapt

into jail until he should give security for the amount. He had to do so

accordingly, and doubtless all his life retained a distaste for

Dutchmen and Dutch onions.

These stories about such monstrous valuations of flower roots recall to

my mind another anecdote which I shall tell, not because it has anything

to do with tulips, but because it is about a Dutchman, and shows in

striking contrast an equally low valuation of human life. It is this.

Once, in time of peace, an English and a Dutch Admiral met at sea, each

in his flag ship, and for some reason or other exchanged complimentary

salutes. By accident, one of the Englishman's guns was shotted and

misdirected, and killed one of the Dutch crew. On hearing the fact the

Englishman at once manned a boat and went to apologize, to inquire about

the poor fellow's family and to send them some money, provide for the

funeral, etc., etc., as a kind hearted man would naturally do. But the

Dutch commander, on meeting him at the quarter-deck, and learning his

errand, at once put all his kindly intentions completely one side,

saying in imperfect English:

"It'sh no matter, it'sh no matter--dere's blaanty more Tutchmen in


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